Wireless Hot Spots Mushrooming

AT&T and MCI plan to offer their customers wireless LAN access from more locations.

Wireless LAN services are becoming the domain of wireline carriers.

While the carriers expect it to be a while before Wi-Fi is a major source of revenue, both AT&T Corp. and MCI this month made headway on their public Internet access—or "hot spot"—strategies.

At the end of the month, MCI will start offering hot spot services to its existing corporate long-distance customers, according to officials in Ashburn, Va.

Through a roaming deal with Wayport Inc., MCI customers will be able to use wireless LANs to reach their corporate VPNs from more than 600 U.S. locations, including hotels, airports and a handful of McDonalds restaurants in California.

Rather than having to pay immediately at the venue, MCI customers will receive the Wi-Fi charges on their monthly statements. MCI also will add the hot spot locations to its phone book software, so customers will know where they are.

However, the company has no immediate plans to offer flat-rate monthly Wi-Fi service or to integrate Wi-Fi into any of its existing long-distance service plans. Customers will receive a surcharge for Wi-Fi usage, on top of whatever theyre paying for dial-up. Officials said that, for now, there isnt enough demand to offer multiple plans.

"Right now its mostly incidental use," said Kevin Gatesman, manager of emerging technologies at MCI in Ashburn. "Primarily folks are using dial-up because thats whats ubiquitous at this point." MCI has no immediate plans to build its own new hot spots, he said.

AT&T, meanwhile, plans to offer wireless access to its VPN services from more than 2,000 locations by the end of the year, said officials at the Bedminster, N.J., carrier.

The service will run via a deal with GRIC Communications Inc., the company that already manages AT&Ts remote dial-up Internet services.

The service should be available in 20 countries to U.S.-based customers in the fourth quarter of 2003, with availability for international customers in the first quarter of next year.

Verizon Communications Inc., meanwhile, is in the process of turning existing phone booths in New York into wireless LAN hot spots for its existing DSL carriers.

Industry experts in the hot spot business expect the support to continue.

"Wireline carriers see Wi-Fi as all good," said David Hagan, president of Boingo Wireless, a hot spot network aggregator in Santa Monica, Calif.